As December fast approaches, we the grateful volunteers are to once more turn our nation into a totalitarian, one-party state. We shall fill our households and neighbourhoods with propaganda, our towns and shopping centres with mass-produced imagery of our rulers. Radio and television broadcasts shall come in the form of the same, repeated music and films; the crowds shall sing the same songs and the school children shall act out the same tales. Then together, we the masses shall celebrate the birthday of the great leader.
Yes, I am talking about Christmas, of course. It is about time that we all join the party.
The scenes are all too familiar: the annual rearrangement of the agreed formulas that make up the adverts dominating our screens. Invariably it is covers of classic British artists such as the Beatles, the Smiths, Elton John and Oasis to name a few, married with a two-minute film that delivers festive warmth to our homes – driven by the backing of millions of pounds worth in targeted, prime-time ad-breaks during I’m a Celeb.
There is no escaping from the fact that this time of the year represents the height of modern capitalism. However reluctantly, we embrace this fact, as Tim Minchin so wonderfully puts it in White Wine in the Sun:
“And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it”
We may sigh at the ever-earlier promotion of Christmas. We may scoff at the chaotic footage of Americanisms such as Black Friday. We do however understand that our continued enjoyment of a festival comes from giving gifts to loved ones; we accept that fits hand in glove with the rising profits of John Lewis and Apple. There is little appetite for an alternative, socialist, anti-materialist, Christmas utopia that we would replace it with, and we know it. To paraphrase the title of an essay of George Orwell’s, ‘socialists don’t believe in fun’.
Besides the undefeatable force of capitalist hegemony, another evident trend of Christmas in the modern age is that there seems to be very little Christ. As an atheist myself, I do not understand the non-believer’s Christmas celebrations as being a hijacking of the Christian religion. Britain, like many other western nations, has undergone a process of secularisation and selected the elements of religion that it likes. This process has improved our country, allowing us to acknowledge the positive contributions that religion has made to our culture and disassociate ourselves from its default, reactionary tendencies.
It is a shame when certain outbursts of individuals or vocal minorities within religions make the headlines, such as one furious Christian who expressed that Starbucks ‘removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus’ in a viral video; likewise, the campaign of rage against Greggs for a harmless publicity photo that placed a sausage roll in a manger. These nonsensical attacks undermine the religious traditions of goodwill that are so central to the festival.
Celebration is not owned by religion; the opportunity to celebrate with family and friends has become the modern meaning of Christmas for millions and the church should be proud of this legacy.
I subscribe to the ‘very atheist Christmas’ as described by Richard Dawkins; that Christmas is about the collective enjoyment of music, the social gatherings to eat, the creation of memories with friends and family, and the opportunity to remember those who are no longer with us. I would also argue that, to quote Orwell once more, Christmas ‘probably started because there had to be an occasional outburst of overeating and drinking to make a break in the unbearable winter.’
So, while a secular celebration of an ancient religion does not render us opportunistic hypocrites at all, perhaps we owe it to our culture to remember the life of Jesus Christ at this time of the year. It is in our interests that we do not forget the true origins of the religion that formed the most widely celebrated festival in the western world, so here goes.
It was in December, circa 6 BC that Jesus, the son of the omnipotent dictator was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. After a grounded upbringing and early career as a carpenter, Jesus realised his passion lied in political activism. He had his own ideology, and founded his own party – there were twelve of them. While they were a considerable force on the campaign trail, a bitter internal war between the party’s rival factions created an existential crisis an threatened to destroy it. Jesus was plotted against, and then stabbed in the back, by Judas, who didn’t have faith in Jesus as the party leader and had a different vision for how to achieve social justice. This destructive in-fighting saw Judas condemned to the political wilderness; the wielder of the dagger, unable to wear the crown. While Jesus received much credit from within the party, he was forced to sacrifice himself to save the doctrine. It all ended in tears, these affairs usually do.